The first thing to go is sour. That hit of brightness a squeeze of lime brings to just about anything? Splitsville. Suddenly, all the sharp edges of food are planed off. It’s like listening to a favorite song with the treble turned down: recognizable but hardly compelling. Acid is just the first flavor casualty of radiation. Salty flees, and no amount of over-seasoning can lure it back. Spice vanishes. Only a week into treatment, and everything that passes my lips tastes like brunch at the gulag. I dream of savoring a lengua taco from Tacos Lolita, a favorite stand in Mexico City’s Roma neighborhood.
Two weeks into radiation, everything tastes like a nickel from the floor of a public restroom. That simple taco—meat crispy on the edges and dressed with cilantro and onion—becomes a totem of everything I’ve lost. Taste buds fried, I’m not sure if treatment is any better than the cancer that got me here. My brain switches off the hunger impulse. Food becomes revolting. I’m running on 1,000 calories a day and shedding body mass. I start this whole cancer thing at 160 pounds. By the end, I’ll bottom out at 130. What doctors don’t tell you is that when you finish a course of radiation you will feel the worst you’ll ever feel. (The medical establishment is big on irony.) As I leave Lenox Hill hospital after my last blast of gamma rays, I have the lithe physique of Mick Jagger circa 1970, but I can barely make it up to my third-floor apartment. Worse, not only has eating ceased being pleasurable, but I also haven’t been to a restaurant or bar in weeks. Just when I need the surefire solace that comes from sharing a meal with friends and family, it has abandoned me.
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And then, like an ex-girlfriend who blows into town for a long weekend, my taste buds return just enough to remind me of how things used to be. The first rekindling comes in the form of two four-minute eggs with a knob of butter and plenty of salt and pepper, eaten from a coffee mug—my grandfather’s go-to breakfast. It’s pure fat, salt and comfort. I am almost delirious with joy. For the first time since my cancer diagnosis, I cry. My wife chalks it up to Percocet and misplaced priorities.
A few weeks later, my taste buds are running at 60 percent, and, looking to gain weight, I espouse the diet of a 14-year-old. Lunch is mozzarella sticks and General Tso’s chicken washed down with a Shake Shack malted. And then, in a “saw that coming” car crash, I overdo it and wind up in the ER, dehydrated and in pain. A battery of doctors tells me to be patient. Take it slow with the eating. Undaunted, I go to a favorite restaurant for the first time in three months. Three dishes in, something goes terribly wrong; I have an allergic reaction and leave looking like Meg Ryan circa 2013. In the span of a month I have moved from the exhilaration of being able to (sort of) eat again to having the act become grueling, exhausting and sometimes vengeful. Depression looms. Recovery, somehow, has become as bad as the treatment.
It’s clear that I need professional help. I ask pals who are into “wellness”—another way to say “people who do yoga”—and a name emerges: Frank Lipman, MD. The New York City–based, internationally known integrative doc has an influential following, including glowing celebrity types like Gwyneth Paltrow. So I email Lipman and he agrees to work out a regimen for me that focuses on diet and alternative treatments such as acupuncture. As someone who has never dabbled in such things, I’m readying my eye rolls, but at this point, what do I have to lose?
Lipman’s office is a little “world beat,” but he comes to it honestly considering his South African roots (which also explain his measured, inscrutable accent). We begin a conversation that goes something like this:
Him: “Have you ever thought about X?”
Me: “Yes, but that’s kind of BS, right?”
Gluten. Caffeine. Sugar. Dairy. One by one, the building blocks of what I would consider a half-decent meal are dissected and tossed aside. As a food editor, and someone who loves to eat, I know what constitutes a healthy diet: lots of vegetables, meat mainly as a flavoring, no processed foods. And, aside from the past few months when I was trying to bulk up, that’s how I mostly eat. Talking to Lipman, it becomes clear that if I’m going to commit, I need to get over my gluten-intolerance intolerance, among other issues. “It’s not just about fattening you up,” he explains. “It’s getting the right nutrients into you—healthy proteins and fats from avocado and fish, phytonutrients from leafy greens—to rebuild your energy.”
Gluten. Caffeine. Sugar. Dairy. One by one, the building blocks of any half-decent meal are tossed aside.
Lipman suggests a three-month plan designed to get me, as he says, “back to as close to normal as you’re going to get.” To make sure I’m getting enough antioxidant-rich vegetables and straight-up calories, I’ll drink a green juice in the morning and a protein shake in the afternoon. To that he adds a twice-daily pour of aloe vera juice mixed with glutamine powder (to speed up healing in my throat, where the tumor was removed) and acupuncture to alleviate post-surgery stiffness in my neck.
When I tell Lipman that I’ve always kept a healthy diet, he quietly sighs in a way I will come to love as much as the natty identical blue button-down shirts he wears every day. “That term is meaningless,” he says. “Different people have different perceptions of healthy. My definition is eating whole foods as close to nature as possible, food that has not been altered or sprayed with pesticides. That’s what eating healthy is.” I can’t argue with that.
Alcohol is verboten, and on my next visit, I share how much I’ve missed it—not so much the tipsiness of the enterprise, but the taste (sweet bourbon, you’ll wait for me, right?), the ritual and the bonhomie of talking with friends over a glass of brown liquor (two rocks, please). What’s the point, I say, of a life based on deprivation? Again, Lipman sighs.
“There are so many things you can have: Grass-fed, organic animal protein, healthy fats and pastured eggs are all good. Not to mention vegetables and fruit,” he says. “This is not magic, it’s a lifestyle, and a lot of it is where your head is at.” Admittedly, my head is skeptical.
For the next few months I get chummy with nut milks and butters, chia seeds, and coconut in oil, milk and yogurt forms (who knew about coconut yogurt?). And a funny thing happens: The more my pantry looks like a food co-op, the more energy I have. Instead of needing to lie down in my office for 15 minutes at 4 p.m., I’m able to stay engaged and awake until my kids are in bed—at 8! I feel like a sprightly senior citizen, but it’s an upgrade.
Even better, it no longer seems like I’m eating with someone else’s mouth. Whatever healing properties are inherent in Lipman’s diet seem to be working. I may not be back to normal, or whatever that will turn out to be, but things are trending upward. Most importantly, a month into Scott DeSimon 2.0, I get the results from my post-treatment PET scan. The cancer is gone.
Two months later I’m finally gaining weight. One drawback to my diet is that empty calories—say, from a couple of beers or a bagel and cream cheese—are hard to come by because I just don’t eat that way anymore. So my attempt at a De Niro in Raging Bull transformation is moving at a De Niro in Last Vegas pace.
Still, I’ve put on 10 pounds and what’s more, I don’t dread eating. Hell, I’ve even straight up enjoyed a few meals out. I’m slowly approaching that version of normal that Lipman pointed me toward. And to celebrate, friends have offered to take me to Mexico City for a long weekend. I know my first stop: Tacos Lolita. And the best part? The lengua tacos are gluten-free.
Scott DeSimon is an editor, a writer and a wellness novice.